19:45 KO (BST); Friday 11th August; Emirates Stadium (London, England); Sky Sports Premier League
Fresh from their triumph over Chelsea in the Community Shield, Arsenal will be keen to carry this momentum into the new season. While a new season provides renewed hope and high expectations for the Gunners, they’ve suffered defeat in three of the previous four season openers, although this season’s beginning is arguably of more importance than any other in recent memory.
With sharp eyes focusing on the plight of the Arsene Wenger and his team though, there will be a weight of expectancy on their shoulders even at this early stage.
Leicester City are the team standing in the Gunners’ path to victory and they will be equally ambitious for their new campaign after finishing last season strongly, following a dismal beginning to their title defence.
The Foxes have proven they can compete against Europe’s finest, but are in need of restoring a consistency to their displays if they’re to have a successful season. However, facing a team they haven’t beaten in the Premier League from 21 attempts which stretch back to 1994, Leicester begin the season with a massive challenge lying in wait for them.
Last Time Out
ARSENAL 1 – 1 Chelsea [4-1 on penalties] (Community Shield)
Arsenal claimed a morale-boosting victory over Chelsea to capture silverware in this season’s inaugural event. While both Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil were absent from the team sheet, Alexandre Lacazette made a promising debut in which he looked sharp and was unlucky to see a shot curl onto the foot of the post in the 22nd minute.
With Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck also looking in good form for the new season, Arsenal looked smooth and confident going forwards.
Another positive for Wenger was the introduction of goalscorer Sead Kolasinac, who came on to make his debut following a clash of heads which left Per Mertesacker unable to continue after half an hour of play. The Bosnian scored a powerful header to level the game late on.
Despite the Gunners’ back line falling asleep after the break and allowing Victor Moses to put the Blues ahead, it was a largely assured performance. They may also have been given a helping hand by Pedro’s rash lunge which served to tilt the game back in their favour, however, Wenger’s side will be buoyed by a gritty performance against last season’s champions.
LEICESTER CITY 2 – 1 Borussia Mönchengladbach (Friendly)
A brace of goals for Jamie Vardy was enough to rally the Foxes from a goal down and clinch victory in a hard-fought game. Leicester clawed their way into the first half after the German side made a strong start to the game, only for Thorgan Hazard to curl Gladbach ahead within a minute of the restart.
Leicester players showed a resilience which has recently been lacking from their pre-season games though. A deliciously floated ball over the defence from the impressive Matty James provided Vardy with his first goal in the 67th minute while Kelechi Iheanacho unselfishly squared the ball for his strike partner seven minutes later.
One note of concern for the Foxes, however, was the short-lived debut of Iheanacho. Lasting on the pitch for only 17 minutes, the £25m substitute limped off nursing his left leg, but is expected to be fit and ready in time for the Friday’s game at Arsenal.
Laurent Koscielny is suspended and Gabriel Paulista (knee) is unavailable, although Per Mertesacker is expected to return and marshal the central position in Arsenal’s three-man defence.
Long-term injuries to Santi Cazorla (ankle) and Jack Wilshere (leg) will see them miss out while both Aaron Ramsey (calf) and Mesut Özil (ankle) look doubtful and are likely to start from the bench. Danny Welbeck will start on the left side of the front three as Wenger confirmed Alexis Sanchez won’t be involved.
Leicester City Lineup
Danny Drinkwater (thigh) has been ruled out of the opening game while Robert Huth (ankle) is also unavailable, paving the way for Harry Maguire to make his competitive debut in the heart of the Foxes’ defence. Islam Slimani is still recovering from a gashed leg suffered in July.
Kelechi Iheanacho has trained again following a knock against Mönchengladbach, however, he’s more likely to make an appearance from the bench than in the starting line-up, whilst the versatile Vicente Iborra may also be eased into the first team. It means Matty James could be in line for his first start since May 2015.
Key Battle: Sead Kolasinac vs Harry Maguire
While arguably not possessing the silky first touch of a typically moulded Arsenal player, Kolasinac plays with a physicality and sense of conviction that many Gunners fans have been longing for in their team. As a free transfer, the signing of Kolasinac might prove as influential as it is shrewd.
Alongside Rob Holding and Granit Xhaka, Arsenal now have players with bite in their team, but it could be the left-sided player’s marauding runs forward which prove to be of greater importance for Arsenal this year.
For Leicester City, their £17m summer-signing from Hull adds some much needed young blood into their back line. A calm and composed figure on the ball, Maguire is assured in bringing the ball forwards from defence and should form a powerful central defensive partnership next to club captain Wes Morgan.
The Englishman is also a threat from set-plays with a strong aerial presence, something which has unsettled Arsenal’s defence many times over the last few seasons. Whichever of these new recruits settle into their new team quickest, could well play a pivotal role in both attack and defence and possibly tip the game in their side’s favour.
Much has been written about the unsettling impact that Arsenal’s protests against Wenger potentially caused last season. What has been interesting in the build-up to this game is how Wenger has accepted a large part of the responsibility for this, due to his reluctance to talk about his own future at the end of last season.
It’s also interesting to note that both he and Theo Walcott have been mentioning the role the fans play during recent interviews, with the emphasis being on the players to provide the fans with a reason to cheer, rather than an expectation that unity will come cheaply.
With the first game of the season for Arsenal in front of a home crowd, the early season expectations could either prove to be a blessing or a curse, but crucially the squad is now all too aware of the precipice they’re sitting on.
Striking for the exit
After weeks of intense speculation regarding potential moves away from their respective clubs, both Mahrez and Sanchez start the season in familiar coloured shirts.
As unlikely as it once appeared, both mercurial wingers could well be lining up against each other on Friday evening, however, it will be interesting to see if either forward commits themselves to a full-blooded challenge if there remains the possibility of a transfer in the offing.
While Sanchez has suffered a limited pre-season due to his involvement in the Confederations Cup and a bout of flu, he looked match-fit and potent in the Community Shield when he was brought on during the closing stages at Wembley.
Riyad Mahrez by contrast has reportedly seen Roma cooling their interest in him as he still seeks a move away from the Midlands. Both Leicester fans and Shakespeare, however, still appear to be in the belief that while he’s still at the club he’s available, while Wenger remains insistent that the Chilean will not be leaving the club anytime soon.
Starting afresh or in reliable hands
With the arrival of several new faces in the dressing room, Craig Shakespeare has key decisions to make regarding his starting line-up. While a threadbare defence almost picks itself, there are plenty of other choices further up the field for Shakespeare to make.
Where the ex-Sevilla captain Vicente Iborra is deployed remains a central question for the Foxes, as does whether to use new signing Iheanacho or the trusted figure of Shinji Okazaki as the supporting striker in their first outing.
After reverting the team to a familiar look upon taking over the reigns from Claudio Ranieri last season, Shakespeare will be all too aware of the benefits that playing a proven side can provide, especially after the relative failures of last season’s big summer signings in Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa who cost a combined total of around £45m.
PREDICTION: Arsenal 2 – 1 Leicester City
A poor pre-season by the Foxes epitomised by sluggish starts to their games could prove fatal for them in this opening fixture. With Arsenal fully focused on the Premier League this season, they will no doubt play like a team with a point to prove and I can see them taking all three points on Friday to kick-start their season.
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?